Nurse Jackie Nurse Jackie

You're Edie Falco. You've got a rec room full of shiny acting awards. Everyone in town wants to work with you. What do you do next? For Falco, the answer is Nurse Jackie (premiering Monday, 10:30 pm/ET, Showtime), a dark dramedy about Jackie Peyton, an unconventional nurse at a New York City hospital who works unauthorized double shifts, robs from the rich to give to the poor and uses sex to get what she wants. Oh, she's also a highly functioning pill-popper.

"Make me good, God — but just not yet," Jackie says, underscoring the show's interplay of light and dark.

"Very few things in life are absolutely black and white," Falco says. "The struggles [Jackie] has are the things that are faced by a lot of people; it's the stuff that goes on in the real world." This is all heady stuff for an actress who took the sillier surface details of a Jersey Mafia wife — mountains of gold jewelry, cotton-candy hair and acrylic nails — and crafted Carmela Soprano, a complicated woman at whom you'd be foolish to chuckle.

Falco loved the Jackie script instantly. "Because I didn't know what was going to happen next," she says. "You read enough scripts, you start to see the formula. You say, 'OK, that guy's going to get together with this person.' But I had no idea. It kept me guessing, and it made me want to know more." (Jackie's surprises include a real curve ball in the first episode that's too good to spoil.)

Executive producer/writer Linda Wallem describes nabbing the Nurse Jackie gig as "the best call I've ever gotten." She and producing partner Lix Brixius inherited a Showtime script for a dark medical series with a supernatural feel. It was written by Evan Dunsky, who has worked previously on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. "Doctors were hanging from the ceiling like bats," she says. "[Dunsky] is a really cool writer, but it was a completely different world." With Falco on board, the pair retained a lot of what Wallem says were the script's "vigilante" aspects, but grounded the story.

The resultant Jackie combines emergency trauma with mordant laughs. "We love to keep people on their toes," Wallem says. "That's real life: There's sadness, and then someone says something hilarious." Wallem describes writing for Falco as an exercise in restraint. "She is such a sniper with emotions and humor and everything, you just don't need to overwrite," she says. "You set up a beautiful situation and hopefully some smart dialogue, but less is more with her."

Wallem, Brixius and Falco are many years sober, but Jackie's pharmaceutical adventures are vivid. "All that sinner-saint stuff is wish fulfillment for Lizzie and me. After all these years being sober, it's fun to play a drug addict again," Wallem says. Falco sees Jackie's double life — as healer and addict — as character-informing. "I think there are a lot of things that [Jackie] loves, a lot of things that she wants, and I think a lot of them cannot exist in the same place," Falco says. "One of the ways that she makes that OK is by this addiction issue that she has."

Co-starring with Falco are Eve Best as a slinky, snarky doc who takes Jackie out for white-tablecloth lunches, Peter Facinelli as an overconfident ER doc with a hilarious sexual-Tourette's-like response to stress, Merritt Wever as an eager-beaver nursing student, and Anna Deavere Smith as a former nurse who is now the hospital administrator — and Jackie's boss/nemesis.

The first season boasts several notable guest stars: Eli Wallach plays a terminally ill man; Swoozie Kurtz and Blythe Danner show up to interact with Dr. Cooper; and Victor Garber appears as a film critic who comes in as a patient but ends up as a potential love interest for Deavere Smith's character. Does Falco have any fantasy guest stars in mind? "Yes, but I think Meryl Streep is probably not interested," she jokes. Meryl, call your agent!

Watch full episodes of Nurse Jackie in our Online Video Guide

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